Collection: Fête à La Française
CD 1:
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956)
Impressions d’Italie (1887) [38:22]: Sérénade (with Jacques Balout, viola) [8:51]; A la fontaine [3:52]; A mules [5:20]; Sur les cimes [6:44]; Napoli (with Robert Cordier, cello) [13:45]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Scènes pittoresques (Orchestral Suite No. 4) (1874) [15:48]:- Marche [3:15]; Air de ballet [2:33]; Angélus [4:57]; Fête bohème [5:03]
Scènes Alsaciennes (Orchestral Suite No. 7) (1881) [22:39]:- Dimanche matin [6:45]; Au cabaret [5:01]; Sous les tilleuls (with Robert Cordier, cello and André Boutard, clarinet) [5:04]; Dimanche soir [5:49]
CD 2:
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Le Chasseur Maudit (1881-2) [15:04]
Rédemption – morceau symphonique (1871-2) [11:45]
Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
Rapsodie norvégienne (1879) [10:49]
Scherzo in A minor (1884) [5:02]
Overture: Le Roi d’Ys * (1878) [11:47]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Overture: Phèdre [8:56] *
Prélude et La Nuit de Noël * (Werther) [9:05]
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Albert Wolff
Orchestre de l’Opéra-Comique Paris*/Albert Wolff
rec. La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris. Le Roi d’Ys, Phèdre, Werther, June 1951; Scènes pittoresques and Scènes Alsaciennes, June 1955; Impressions d’Italie, Le Chasseur Maudit, Rédemption, Rapsodie norvégienne, Scherzo, May 1956
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 2382 [77:47 + 73:14]

How well I remember Albert Wolff’s Decca recordings as I was discovering music as a student in the early 1950s. And I recall buying his recordings of French music on budget Decca Eclipse LPs as they appeared a few years later. Wolff enjoyed a long career in the recording studios beginning in the 1920s but only began his association with Decca in 1951 with complete recordings of Carmen and Manon.

Gustav Charpentier, best known, perhaps, for his opera, Louise, should not be confused with Marc-Antoine Charpentier [?1645-1704 ] Gustav Charpentier’s five-movement Impressions d’Italie is a delightful confection. It was written in the Villa Medici, Rome while the composer was studying there having won the Prix de Rome. The opening Sérénade is supposed to mimic ardent village swains passionately serenading village maidens under their windows. Unison strings add portamenti passion, and harps and pizzicato strings imitate mandolins; and Balout’s solo viola adds a note of bitter-sweet piquancy. The languid rusticity of A la fontaine seems to represent girls filling urns of water from a mountain well, while the rhythms of A mules suggest the steady clip-clop of hooves and their harness bells plus bird song along the way, all add up to a most appealing evocation. Equally evocative is Sur les cimes – ‘On the hilltops’ - first misty then sunlit grandeur, wide vistas and hints of cow-bells in high pastures. It is interesting to compare this little gem with Delius’s Song of the High Hills. The most substantial of these ‘scenes’ is Napoli lasting nearly a quarter of an hour. Napoli is a high-spirited piece that captures all the heightened colour and ebullience and the dance rhythms and songs of the Southern Italian City while Cordier’s soothing cello solo suggests a midday languor. Wolff delivers all these tasty titbits with enthusiasm and élan.

Massenet composed seven orchestral suites of which the two that complete CD 1 have endured. The colourfully evocative and melodic Scènes pittoresques commences with the light-footed Marche which might have been inspired by the magic of a children’s toy-box and could well be ballet music as well as the Air de Ballet that forms the second piece, a rather enchanting little gem first used by Massenet in his second opera Don César de Bazan. Again the title of the third scène, Angélus, describes its character, tolling-bell figures and simple piety and majestic devotions. The Fête bohème is all rustic exuberance.

Massenet’s inspiration for his Scènes Alsaciennes suite was a series of stories by Alphonse Daudet called Contes de lundi. Daudet’s work had previously inspired Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. Massenet uses the Alsatian folk music style very effectively in this composition. The opening piece Dimanche matin is a pastoral representation of an Alsatian village, quiet and empty except for the odd note of birdsong because the inhabitants are in church and their supplications are heard in the central section. Au cabaret is a dance at the village tavern - a quaint mix of ballet and rusticity, this – and, is that a military band outside? The tenderly romantic Sous les tilleuls is a musical depiction of two lovers represented by a cello and a clarinet, walking and whispering down an avenue of linden trees; a stand-out item. The final scène Dimanche soir is much more assertive with some genuine regional folk tunes but there is also a dramatic reminder of the turbulence and fighting in the region.

CD 2 also has music by Massenet. In mono sound is a strong performance of his Phèdre Overture, its darkly dramatic and treacly romantic music speaking eloquently of the incest, jealousy and turbulence unleashed in the Greek tragedy about Phèdre, daughter of the Cretan King Minos. Phèdre becomes the wife of Theseus but then becomes enamoured of Hippolytus, Theseus’s son. Again in mono, is Massenet’s Prélude et La Nuit de Noël from his immensely popular opera, Werther. This music accompanies the transition between Acts III and IV with Charlotte frantically rushing to tell the lovelorn Werther that she has always loved him. Alas it is all too late to prevent the impetuous youth shooting himself in romantic despair knowing his love has married someone else. Wolff nicely underlines all the frantic and tragic elements of the story, the music ending with Christmas bells fading in the night air.

Two of César Franck’s lesser-known works are included – both somewhat inflated and over-dramatic. His Le Chasseur Maudit begins with hunting horns echoing across the soundstage and Sabbath church bells tolling mournfully. The Huntsman, a Rhenish count, ignores their peals and persists with the chase and it is Satan who then hunts him through eternity. All this is vividly, melodramatically evoked in Franck’s tone poem. Wolff’s vividly nuanced reading really thrills, his pounding rhythms tense and taut. As antidote to the horrors of the Accursed Huntsman, Franck’s Rédemption – morceau symphonique is a liturgical piece, the second part of what was a lengthy oratorio, Rédemption composed 1871-2 which was not a success. This purely orchestral second movement is all that is remembered today. It is a devotional piece - serene and ecstatic, solemn and magisterial.

Lalo’s Rapsodie norvégienne followed on from his Fantasie norvégienne which had been scored for violin and orchestra after meeting the Norwegian violinist and composer, Johan Svendsen. The Rapsodie shared some material with the Fantasie but had new themes too. The music is very pleasant and has some striking orchestral effects to heighten the pastoral atmosphere of the opening Andantino-Allegretto. The Presto second section is a wild dance. Wolff’s reading is very atmospheric and involving. Lalo’s entrancing Scherzo - worth the price of this collection alone - is music taken at the gallop with a pause for a pizzicato melody; a romantic interlude to the hunt in some woodland glade? This Scherzo is an orchestration of the second movement of his Piano Trio No. 3.

The main work in the section of this CD, devoted to the music of Édouard Lalo, is the overture to his opera, Le Roi d’Ys. It’s in mono sound. The jealous Margared, daughter of the King of Ys conspires to open the flood-gates of the city during the marriage of her beloved knight Mylio to her sister Rozenn. Repenting at the last moment, Margared throws herself into the ocean, calming its waves with her sacrifice. All this drama; its pomp and majesty, jealousy and sacrifice is reflected in the tumult of the music. Occasional sour notes here and elsewhere in this collection from idiosyncratic French brass might momentarily disconcert.

A generally pleasing concert of less well-known or forgotten French music performed in style by Wolff - a master of the genre.

Ian Lace

A generally pleasing concert of less well-known or forgotten French music performed in style by Wolff - a master of the genre.